The urgency felt in a sold-out Williams Arena reflected on the faces of Gophers players and fans alike.
There was one more game, and then the Big Ten tournament, but everyone in the building knew the season had come down to this: one last chance to redeem a season otherwise gone off course.
And when the last surge of momentum swung back, the energy left the Barn more swiftly than the air from a popped balloon.
A 76-63 loss to No. 6 Wisconsin on Thursday night stripped the Gophers of any lingering NCAA tournament aspirations, save for winning the Big Ten tournament, which starts next week in Chicago.
“That would have been huge,” senior guard Andre Hollins said, “in keeping our hopes alive.”
For a few raucous minutes in the second half, the Gophers (17-13, 6-11 Big Ten) threatened to make up for its sluggish 0-5 start to conference play with a finish not seen in years. A victory over the Big Ten’s top team all season, especially on the heels of a 96-90 victory at Michigan State last week, would have surged new life into a limping season.
After trailing by as many as 20, the Gophers flipped a switch and used a big first-half run, improved second-half defense and a pair of three-pointers after the break to cut the lead to 46-40 with just over 17 minutes left. And with 2 minutes, 28 seconds to go, the Gophers still stayed within 10 of the Badgers (27-3, 15-2), but they couldn’t keep Wisconsin from clinching the conference championship outright.
“We started pressuring more,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought we were getting frustrated at shots not going in the first couple minutes [of the game] and it was deflating us.”
But despite holding Wisconsin to 37.9 percent shooting in the second half, the effort was too little too late for the Gophers, who were called for 16 fouls and let the Badgers go 10-for-20 from three-point range.
National Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky led Wisconsin with 25 points — 16 in the first half — and a crafty Sam Dekker added 20.
Nate Mason had 15 points for the Gophers, and Mo Walker added seven points and 11 rebounds. Freshman Bakary Konate finished with seven points, four rebounds, a block and a steal, while helping to contain a somewhat more muted Kaminsky.
“We started getting stops when Bakary came in the game,” Pitino said. “I’m very, very excited about him. … He’s just a presence. He’s a big presence.”
Said Konate, “Playing against the best player and [one of] the best teams in the country — that’s motivation to play hard.”
But most of the damage was done in a first half in which the Badgers ran rampant.
Despite an 18-8 run to close the first half that was capped by Hollins’ buzzer-beating three-pointer, the Gophers trailed 44-34 at the break as the Badgers shot 63 percent from the field, including 7-for-10 from beyond the arc. Dekker punished the Gophers with back-door dunks and scores at the rim. Kaminsky, who also had six rebounds and seven assists, got to the basket at will and also went 2-for-3 from long range in the first half.
A year ago, the Gophers beat Wisconsin at home after getting Kaminsky into foul trouble early. Thursday, it was Kaminsky getting all the calls.
“He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal player,” Pitino said. “And the only way to beat him? Get him on the bench somehow. It’s hard to do.”